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‘Uncharted times’: Planning for wildfire season amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Canada

Municipal and provincial officials and firefighters in Alberta are gearing up for wildfire season as best they can, but nobody has experience dealing with fire fighting during a pandemic.

A firefighter surveys the Chuckegg Creek wildfire near High Level, Alta., last year. The blaze burned more than 331,000 hectares at its height, causing some 4,000 people to flee their homes for two weeks.(Josh Lambert )

For the last four years, cities and towns near large forests and woodland across Alberta have known spring brings increased wildfire risk. This year, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is throwing a wrench into any plans to deal with wildfire season.

As of Monday afternoon, the province had more than 1,300 confirmed cases and 24 deaths, according to the government's official tally.

In High Level, a town of 4,000 roughly 740 kilometres north of Edmonton, the sports complex has previously served as an evacuation centre for other nearby communities. But it won't be used this year, as Alberta Health Services has taken it over as an assessment centre for COVID-19 cases in the region.

"It's just a collision of, I don't know what to call it, the perfect storm, because we don't have places to go," said High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer.

"If we do have a fire where people have to evacuate, how do we keep people separated from the people that may have been infected?" she added.

There are blazes burning to the north and south of her jurisdiction since spring 2019. They have been under control since last June.

Fires already burning

While it may seem unusual to think of fire planning while snow blankets much of Alberta, two weeks ago, the province's wildfire app showed five fires burning in the province, represented by green icons to indicate they were all "under control." By the end of that week, there was a sixth.

Last year, one of them, the Chuckegg Creek fire, scorched more than 331,000 hectares, causing residents of High Level and neighbouring areas to flee their homes for two weeks.

Though out of control fires are in the rearview mirror for Alberta communities at the moment, they have to prepare for what could be in store this year in a matter of weeks. (Josh Lambert )

"They're all very afraid of the coronavirus reaching our community," said McAteer of her residents.

She is now looking for alternative arrangements to the sports complex, in anticipation of an influx of people fleeing fires coming to her town for refuge.

One possibility is nearby campsites, vacant for now. McAteer says they were used by firefighters last year, but the fire crews could move to hotels this year, since the businesses are shut down due to the pandemic.

That would work only if High Level itself did not have to be evacuated again.

There was "very little snow" in High Level this year, McAteer said. While much of Alberta's southern parts had a summer of rain in 2019, drought-like conditions remained in place for the north.

A fire like the Chuckegg Creek fire could play tricks, like it did last year. "In some places it goes 20 feet underground, and it just smoulders and smoulders, and then flares up when the conditions are right, especially if we have high winds."

How to evacuate the whole town?

"I guess we're all in uncharted times now," McAteer said.

It would be hard to send entire communities to bigger cities, she added, as there is COVID-19 in the larger centres such as Edmonton, Slave Lake and Grande Prairie. "These are the places where we would normally go to."

She is considering talks with the Northwest Territories, only a two-hour drive north, but the territory has currently shut down its inter-provincial border as a precautionary measure to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Slave Lake and Peace River are also adapting to facing a wildfire season coupled with a pandemic.

A scene from last year's Chuckegg Creek Fire. This year, firefighters will have to be mindful of physical distancing while they do their jobs, whenever they can. (Josh Lambert )

Officials in Peace River told CBC their ski shelter could once again serve as an evacuation centre, but public health recommendations for physical distancing would mean fewer people could be let in.

Meanwhile, Alberta Wildfire issued a news release at the beginning of March to alert news outlets wildfire season had started and was expected to last until October.

"Be a boy scout, be prepared, is always a good model," said Mike Flannigan, who teaches wildfire science at the University of Alberta.

"In a week or two, we could go from snow to sweat and fires could be popping up all over."

Flannigan said it is impossible to predict the intensity of this year's fire season, but trends of the last few years provide a clue.

"On average, we are warming," he said, citing British Columbia's record-breaking fire seasons for 2017 and 2018. "Alberta, 2019, it was the second-busiest fire season since 1981."

Firefighter staffing levels a concern

Front-line workers are also contemplating what a busy fire season could mean if they are dealing with a public-health pandemic.

"Usually, you have someone backing you up [on a 65 ml fire hose]; it's very hard to do on your own," said volunteer firefighter Josh Lambert, who helped subdue the Chuckegg Creek fire last year.

WATCH | Firefighters spray edges of the Chuckegg Creek fire with water:

Firefighters fend off flames from the Chuckegg Creek fire south of High Level, Alta., in May 2019. It was one of the largest in the province, burning more than 331,000 hectares at its height and forcing about 4,000 people from their homes. (Josh Lambert)0:08

Lambert said fire crews do their best to follow public health recommendations, but there are some activities you cannot conduct when standing two metres apart from anyone else at all times.

"You're going to be crewed in a truck where you have to sit right beside people," he said.

"Everything is getting cleaned after we get in and out of firetrucks. Everything is cleaned right after we get back from a call. Extra personal protective equipment is required as well, just to be as safe as we can."

Lambert, who also lives in High Level, said he is optimistic the town has learned lessons from last year that will help it mitigate the impacts of any large fires. But he does have concerns about getting deployed to other communities.

Fires may disappear underground only to return in the presence of high winds and dry weather, experts say. (Josh Lambert )

"If there was any other department, that's when you get worried, because there's a cluster of a bunch more people," he said.

More than 300 fire service members in isolation

Meanwhile, the Alberta Fire Fighters Association, which represents 3,200 firefighters, has staffing concerns.

"[The pandemic] is going to tax the system in ways we've never seen," said association president Brad Readman.

In previous years, firefighters from other provinces have flown in to help crews in Alberta, and vice-versa, as needed. That may be complicated by travel restrictions, flight cancellations and layoffs at Canada's major airlines.

"Unless you lived through the Spanish flu, this is uncharted territory for all of us," he said.

A few firefighters in Alberta have tested positive for COVID-19. At the time of the interview, Readman said 316 members of the AFFA were in self-isolation either due to recent travel or cold-like symptoms. That could mean a shortage of firefighters if wildfire season becomes intense.

"Fires don't stop during a pandemic," he said. "Life still goes on even when there is a medical pandemic."

Readman was looking for firefighters and other front-line health workers to get tested in a separate stream than the rest of the general population, in order to make sure they could be back at work as quickly as possible.

The association has asked the provincial government for accelerated testing so they are not lining up with the rest of Albertans.

An Alberta Health Services employees speak to a person at a drive-thru testing facility in Calgary. The Alberta Fire Fighters Association has asked the provincial government for dedicated testing sites for firefighters.(Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Health Services spokesperson Tom McMillan said testing has been prioritized for front-line workers, including doctors, nurses and firefighters.

But AHS is not considering creating an entirely separate stream.

"We have accelerated testing to ensure that health-care workers who need testing get it as soon as possible," McMillan wrote in an email.

Province exploring 'various scenarios'

CBC News asked for an interview with Paul Wynnyk, Alberta's deputy minister of Municipal Affairs, who is also in charge of the provincial operations centre overseeing emergency response, but spokesperson Timothy Gerwing said he was unavailable.

In a statement, Gerwing said the province's emergency management professionals "are capable of managing several emergencies at the same time."

Gerwing also wrote the same professionals would work with chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw "to inform any potential measures to keep Albertans safe" in the event of community evacuations, and are in constant contact with the health department as well as Alberta Wildfire.

The government's Alberta Wildfire page acknowledges the pandemic is a particular concern, and says it is drafting a response plan.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, seen at a press conference last month, said Monday that he would step up efforts to monitor wildfires this year because of the strain that COVID-19 could put on firefighting resources.(Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Monday afternoon, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney provided a glimpse of what that plan could include.

He said there would be fire bans put in place in wilderness areas before this weekend as a preventative measure; helicopter surveillance flights; and fire watch tower staffing would start earlier than normal.

"To be blunt, we are quite concerned about the possibility of managing this pandemic and then having a lot of wildfires at the same time like we did last summer or spring," Kenney said.

Wildfire smoke-related air pollution could target the same vulnerable populations with respiratory problems and other underlying health conditions that are particularly susceptible to the virus.

The provincial govenment's wildfire map currently shows six fires under control on its territory. Alberta Wildfire says it's struck a team to look into the logistics of battling wildfires during a pandemic. (Alberta Wildfire screengrab)

There may be one silver lining yet, according to Flannigan.

Though global warming means fire seasons are generally stretching in length and intensity, he pointed out most wildfires are still the results of human activity.

"If parks are closed and people are still in a stay-at-home policy, then there are still not too many people out camping," he said.

"If there are fewer people out and about working or recreating, then there is less likely to be human-caused fires," he said.

About the Author

Raffy Boudjikanian is a national reporter with CBC in Edmonton. He has also worked in Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.

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